THE statue of the recumbent unknown soldier has moved from the back of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and gone to Canberra. For four months the George Lambert sculpture will be part of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia celebrating his works. The great artist was commissioned in 1928 to do the piece in memory of Australian Catholic soldiers lost to war. It was unveiled at St Mary’s in 1931.
It is a wonderfully poignant piece of art and it is almost impossible to leave the church without running your hands over the bronze likeness of a Digger who gave his life for the good of his country. In much the same way that not all Christians are good people, not all soldiers are motivated by the will to contribute to the peace of nations.
A week or so ago, my husband and I hired a DVD to watch one idle night: he likes action films, so we chose Blood Diamond . I lasted about 10 seconds. Not only was the violence against villagers by marauding soldiers in Sierra Leone enough to make you want to throw yourself under a truck, but Leonardo DiCaprio acted the part of a swooning swain.
Blood Diamond is only a film, although it gives us pause for thought. In real life, Africa is notorious for its thug soldiers. Robert Mugabe — or Mugsy, as some of us call him — was educated by the Jesuits at the Kutama Mission in Zimbabwe. In 1977, his soldiers massacred seven workers at Musami Mission, another Jesuit centre. Months later, one of the perpetrators said: ‘‘ If the Jews hadn’t killed Christ, I’d have done it myself.’’
Then there’s Uganda’s Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
This is a part of Africa where an entire society lives under threat of having its children between the ages of seven and 17 abducted and killed or turned into killers. One of the most terrifying sights in the world is that of a teenager with a loaded Kalashnikov.
Kony is a madman who rules with a mixture of charismatic Christianity, tribal religion and bastardised Islam: he claims to be under orders from the Holy Spirit to go on killing until Uganda is ruled by the Ten Commandments.
How fortunate we are to live in a country so proud of our soldiers. But the burial earlier this month, with full military honours, of two men killed in Vietnam, whose bodies were found 40 years later, reminds us of the impermanence of peace.
Our unknown soldier, which lay largely unnoticed in the crypt, was brought upstairs in 2004, and a copy of the newspaper Labour Daily , dated 1931, was found beneath it. Neil Brown, the dean of St Mary’s who conducts enlightening tours of the crypt every Sunday, says he misses the statue already. He describes the model as a man with a real Bondi beach face and says it is a great favourite with schoolchildren, who love to touch and admire it.
fraserj@ theaustralian. com. au